House Democrats bought an impeachment pig in a poke on Tuesday. After several months of caution from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other caucus leaders, a standoff over claims from a whistleblower pushed them into a declaration of intent to formally pursue impeachment against Donald Trump. Quoting Julius Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon to assume imperial control of Rome, Pelosi said "alea iacta est" — the die is cast. And indeed, with the urging of senior House Democrats such as Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) demanding impeachment over alleged abuse of presidential power to force Ukraine's new president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden's son, the momentum toward Trump's impeachment seems to have finally made that showdown inevitable.
A subsequent release of the transcript suggests that this Rubicon might have been better left uncrossed — at least until Democrats got a closer look at the river. Having entered into the current, however, Pelosi might have little choice but to get to the other side.
Unfortunately for all sides, the transcript of the conversation is yet another Rorschach political test, thanks to its ambiguities and diplomatic nuances. The July 25 call contains no threats to withhold aid; in fact, it sounds more like a lovefest over Volodymyr Zelensky's surprise election win.
However, the transcript shows a conversation that appears somewhat distant from Trump's proclaimed "perfect" status, too. Just after Zelensky mentions the need for more defense aid, Trump asks him for a "favor" — a probe into the Russia-collusion allegations that recently came to a close in the Mueller investigation. That was a close enough proximity for Republican Senator Mitt Romney to call it "deeply troubling." Trump's focus throughout the conversation remains almost exclusively on his own personal political needs rather than the national interest in the relationship with Ukraine, which might not be an abuse of power but an attitude that is easy to criticize.
That still represents a significant gap between Democrats' accusations and what the conversation actually contained. Caucus leadership in both the House and Senate had demanded transparency on the interactions between Trump and Zelensky while accusing Trump of twisting Zelensky's arm to reopen the Burisma probe. Whatever other criticisms the transcript might support, it contains neither threats nor quid pro quos. It's an argument for Democrats in the next election, but not justification for overturning the previous one.
That leaves Pelosi and the Democrats in a precarious position, both on the impeachment process and in the 2020 election. Pelosi's declaration yesterday, New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin wrote, "effectively committed House Dems to impeaching Trump." Having declared for a formal impeachment process, Pelosi can't afford not to deliver, as it would hand Trump a victory and infuriate Democrats' progressive base — just ahead of a presidential election.
Even if they succeed at gaining a majority for impeachment, they might end up with a Pyrrhic victory. First, impeachment without removal is meaningless and potentially counterproductive, as Republicans learned in 1998. Despite Romney's reaction, no Republicans in either chamber have endorsed impeachment, and several Senate Republicans condemned the effort. After the publication of the Trump-Zelensky transcript, Senate Judiciary chair Lindsey Graham called it "insane," and Thom Tillis called it "a total farce." Democrats would have to get 20 Republicans to join them in removing Trump from office, and thus far it's not even clear that they would hold all 47 of their own seats on the question.
More critically, Democrats have been selling impeachment for months — and the American public isn't buying it, even with the shifting rationales Democrats have made in arguing for it. A new Politico-Morning Consult survey started after the Ukraine allegations first emerged last week shows that support for impeachment hasn't budged since the release of the Mueller report, ticking down a point from the previous week to 36 percent. More than half of respondents had heard "some" or "a lot" about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, but it didn't impact the results at all.
Worse yet, impeachment isn't selling where Democrats made their best gains in the midterms. A majority of suburban respondents oppose starting the impeachment process (35 percent/50 percent), with a wider gap among rural respondents (27/59), while urban voters are more ambivalent than one might guess (47/35). Impeachment trails by double digits in the South (33/53), Midwest, (36/48), and even in the Democrat-friendly Northeast (37/48).
Without a smoking gun more convincing than the Zelensky call, Democrats have no hope of moving those numbers, which have remained fairly constant since early this year. CNN reported this morning that some in Pelosi's caucus had already started warning about what would happen when the transcript turned out to be less than advertised by impeachment advocates, and that moderates had tried to insist that Pelosi wait for an explicit quid pro quo before taking the leap.
That would have been good advice, as it turns out. Pelosi's now stuck with delivering impeachment regardless of public sentiment about it, and then preparing for the backlash in the suburbs, Midwest, and South if she succeeds. Alea iacta est, indeed.
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